Dr. Richard Byrne was the Keynote Speaker at Bio'76, which was the combined meeting of the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI), the Biocommunications Association (BCA), the Health and Science Communications Association (HeSCA), and the Association of Biomedical Communication Directors (ABCD). His presentation was powerful, and was filled with his technical insight, personal reflection, and comedic wit. In 1985, Dr. Byrne produced a cassette tape series of twelve professional lectures, which defined what he called, "Breakthrough." The concepts presented in his Breakthrough series are universal and are applicable today. In conjunction with Dr. Byrne's wife, Mary Anne Byrne, the Journal of Biocommunication has included all 12 of Dr. Byrne's original "Breakthrough" lectures, the final four appearing here in JBC 46-2.


The following article is the tenth presentation from this "Breakthrough" series. It has been transcribed from a cassette series produced by Richard Byrne in 1985. Some of the content has been edited from the original transcription text in order to provide clarity or context to the reader.



Dr. Richard Byrne


Breakthrough Thinking

We've been talking about the computer age and whether or not it's real. I hope you realize by now that it either is, or isn't, depending on you. It really depends upon your attitude, your perception, what you see in the world, and the advantage you take of the opportunities that to come you. I think we're living in an age of breakthrough. I think there are breakthroughs all around us. You know about the technological ones, you know about the scientific ones. The question is, are we making the same kind of breakthroughs in our personal life? Are you making breakthroughs at business, in education, in government, in your family, in your home? How do we prepare to do that?


You see, I think that you can learn a skill that I call, 'Breakthrough thinking.' When you face a new technology, when do you buy a new computer? You have a computer? A new one comes out, when do you buy the new one? Well, not today. A week later, two weeks or when? How do you decide? What's the criterion? How do know when it's time for you? You have to have some kind of criterion about productivity, how you feel about what you're doing and when it's time to change. I think you need to learn this skill that I call, 'Breakthrough thinking.'


We've emphasized over and over again how you have to be willing to be ignorant. You have to hang out in the not knowing. The people who I admire and trust the most, the ones I respect the most, are people who are willing to say in public, "I don't know." That means they are telling the truth. So, if somebody says to them, "Which of these computers do you think we should get?" and the guy says, "I don't know." Then we ask, "How do you think we should find out?" He responds, "Gee, I don't know." I trust that person. I will say to them, "Good, let's figure it out," and they say, "Fine, be glad to figure it out, I just don't know! "


Anyone who says to you, "Always get the Farnistanfarkel with the disk drive," is probably a phony, because we can't possibly know. We have to be constantly struggling and learning and growing, but we cannot know with certainty. Now, you've got to learn what I call 'Breakthrough thinking.' Breakthrough thinking means that every time you see a problem, you don't see it just in terms of the problem, you see it in terms of the potential. You're faced with a problem, and you ask what is the opportunity that the problem provides? If you have broken down, there's a real problem and you're stuck. Fine. What is the opportunity that provides? From being stuck you can spring off the springboard. You can make the lightning leap from the crisis. In fact, crisis usually creates the lightening leap.


Is any room in your house disorganized? Well, I'll tell you how to get it cleaned up. Just throw your car keys over your shoulder so they land in a pile and you can't find them. You'll be so furious in 20 minutes that in four hours you'll have your room cleaned up. I mean frequently, it's that final – you know the straw that breaks the camel's back? I mean there's that little, nutty, crazy making thing and suddenly you clean everything up.


What we're after here are turnaround tactics. Turnaround tactics. How do you go from being stuck to being victorious? Seeing the bad news as the good news. Are there any problems in computers? The answer is yes, lots of them. The better you get with computers, will you still encounter problems? Yeah, new problems. We have to see the problems as the good part; the problems are the opportunity. They're not something to be avoided. People say, "Boy, if I could just get rid of the problems, I'd come to work." No, no, no.


Have you ever played tennis? When you play tennis, that's a really perverse, stupid thing for a human being to do. It's just ridiculous! Look at the problems involved in playing tennis! First of all, can you get a court? Have you got a racket? Can you get some balls? Can you get somebody to play with? Second, look at the serve. Just the serve, just the first serve. You walk out, first serve. One, can you hit the ball? Two, can you hit it hard enough to get it over the net? Three, can you hit it accurately enough to hit left of the right line? Four, can you hit right of the left line? Five, can you hit short of the long line? Six, can you hit it hard enough so you don't look stupid? Seven, your partner – get that, partner, your opponent is your partner, your tennis partner is your opponent? – hits it down the baseline into the showers and you say, "I thought this was a friendly game! You're going to make it hard on me? Check this!" Then you jack the risk up and you kill them, and they kill you, and after two hours, you stop sweating, which is a bad sign! You're a coronary case! You say, "that's fabulous, help me back to the car! Can you play tomorrow?"


The problems are the good part! That's the fun. You know the Chinese sign, the ideogram for crisis? The symbol for crisis is two symbols combined, and it means fraught with peril, full of peril, danger, and fraught with opportunity. It's a moment in time when things could go well, or things could go bad, but they could always go well. So, when you see crisis, when you see someone who is stuck, when you see a new problem in the organization, that's the good part. Whenever I see a problem, when I'm called in as consultant, I get excited and my hands sweat, thinking, "Oh boy! This place is crashing and burning! This is going to be great!"


Have you ever watched the Spielberg movie where Indiana Jones is in a mine and being killed and shot and tied up, and you think, "Oh, this is so awful, this will be terrific!" Because getting out of it, being that awful situation, is going to be the good part.


We have to learn to think in terms of breakthrough. Breakthrough thinking. Don't think about maintenance, about how we going to keep the machines running. No, no, no. Think about how we are going to spring forward, and then spring forward again, and spring forward again. That's a state of mind. That's not just something that happens once in a while. Some people do it all the time. Do you know the people in your lives, people you know who just seem to leap from one mountain to another? Just boom, boom, boom, boom. It's because they expect it. They expect it. They live lives of champions, and they expect breakthrough thinking.


Now, you're probably not going to do this alone. You're probably going to do this with someone else, right? Unless it's just a breakthrough in discovering parts of your own body or something, I don't know. If you live with someone or work with someone, the breakthrough will involve other people.


One thing you have to learn in breakthrough thinking is to learn to reward what I call outlaw behavior. Outlaw behavior. Society is set up and you're supposed to stay the same. Did you know that? Whoever you are, you're supposed to stay the same. If you stay the same, everybody will think that's okay. You're not supposed to change. You're not supposed to change your name, change your shape, change your face, change your body. That's why spies do that, because we don't think anybody would do that. They cut off their nose, shave their head and gain 50 pounds. You look at them and you say, "It's not the same guy because nobody would cut off his nose!" They alter their shape and since that's such outlaw behavior, we just assume it's somebody else. So, what do you do when somebody who has had a problem, been overweight, depressed, a computer phobic and so forth, all of a sudden shows up trim, fit, carrying a portable terminal, going off to run a corporate board meeting of his own company? We look at it and say, "Who is that?" because it's so different that we can't accept it. In many companies, many organizations, many families, the only thing that is acceptable is behavior that's the same as it has always been. So, you come up with a new solution, something that's different, people get crazy. We have to learn to reward the outlaw behavior and we're going to have to do it together.


Look at the levels of working together. I think we need to move toward what I will call co-creation. Co-creation. That's where we need to go. On one level, we have real competition, and people actually fight one another! They steal the disk drive and hide the floppies and so forth. They actually fight against one another. Even at that basest level, that really disgusting level which we all ought to avoid, you can have a pretty good game there. That's what the National Football League is all about. You have teams whacking themselves senseless, but they do it on a schedule. They do it on Thursday night in Detroit, and its on TV and that's okay because they are competing together. They are not competing against each other; they're competing together, so even that basic level can be positive.


Next step would be collaboration. Collaboration is, "Oh, I'll only run my stereo until ten o'clock at night if you won't walk your dog through my garden." Essentially, I'll lose this if you'll lose that. Okay, what are you willing to give up? Then I'll give up, this or that. It's a little better than direct competition, like slicing the guy's tires. It's better than competing, but it's not great.


Next level up is cooperation. You go from competition to collaboration to cooperation. This is what I call the potluck supper, like when you go to church and they say, "Let's have a potluck supper!" You agree, and they say, "Everybody with a name up to H, brings meat, I to L is salads and above that is desserts," then everybody goes home. A week later they all show up and there's all this stuff that you try to eat. It's a form of coordination and cooperation. You do it together because you want to do it together.


The ultimate level is what I call co-creation. It's what you see in a great musical group, it's what you see in a great basketball team, it's what you see in any championship performance. The group is actually making up a great jazz tune as they go. All along, together. Who played it, "We did. It's not like, the sax man played most of it and the drummer played a little. No, no, no. We did." In the Book of the Dali, they talk about leadership, ideal leadership. If you ask the people who have been led and say, "Who did this?" and they say, "We did." It's like the leader is invisible.


Now, once we've learned the skill of co-creation and we're committed to that process, then we need to develop the breakthrough agenda. We need a list of the breakthroughs that are desirable in our relationships, like between a couple. "What would be a breakthrough here? A breakthrough would be if you'd learn to cook, instead of me." "Oh, that would be a breakthrough? It would be a breakthrough for me! Oh, I didn't know that." We need to write down the breakthroughs. I'm not talking about predictions. You read all these things, the National Inquirer and Farmers' Almanac, predicting that during this year this TV star will probably have a child or whatever. No, I'm not talking about predictions. I'm talking about is a list of desired miracles. What miracles would we like to see arranged regarding technologies, the organization, our families, etc.?


Recently, a writer proposed the idea that we should suppose that a vastly intelligent race suddenly appeared on the Earth, vastly superior to us. They came to us and they said, "What can we do for you? How can we help you?" The question is, what would you have to say back to them? See, we should have a list, an agenda of the miracles that we would like. We'd like to end hunger. We would like to have technology that serves humans and does not dehumanize them. We should have a shopping list ready of miracles we'd like to see arranged. That's called breakthrough thinking. We should share that list, not to just vastly superior intelligences, but we should share it with our own children. Tell children. There are several reasons. One, children don't yet know the world doesn't work. Children believe the world works. So, if you say to them, "We need to have computers that don't dehumanize and that give us an opportunity to express ourselves as artistic creatures," children will say, "All right," and ten years later they'll go invent one. They need to know what the miracles are that they should be working on and it ought to be done at the very youngest level.


The question, by the way, is always the answer. That is, if you say to someone, "How can we create a world that works for everyone? How can we create a computer which is easy to use and yet powerful?" The very asking of the question, is the positing of the answer. The question is the answer. So, the answer is the booby prize. It is like if you ask, "What's the most powerful computer today?" The answer is the booby prize. You say "It's the XLB," or whatever it is, and the instant you say that, a new computer appears, so whatever it was, it isn't anymore. The important thing is the question. What you should be doing in your life is not looking for answers, you should be looking for the good questions.


What are the questions? What is the agenda for future change in your life that we should tell the vastly superior intelligence that is going to appear in your life any day now? I suggest you get together. Get together. Have a meeting, have lunch, have dinner. I call them breakthrough forums. Get some people together. I sometimes call them mad scientist meetings. Get people together and say, "Okay, the rules are, there are no rules." You can say anything in this next hour that you want to. It's only going to run one hour. At the end of the hour, you better act like a human being or they'll lock you up. But during this hour, you can invent miracles. You can say, "I would like a world that does this." You can say, "This is how I would like to use the technology," and then you all share the best of what you know about miracles. It's very embarrassing for most people to talk about miracles, because what they talk about is what they have, and maybe a 5% increase, but we don't conceive of the possible. Most of the real miracles that we are qualified to create, we haven't even thought of yet. So, get together, have a potluck dinner, call it a breakthrough forum or a mad scientist meeting, suspend your judgment for one hour, and be willing to say goodbye to your cherished beliefs, because breakthrough is a coming.


In the next article of this series, I'm going to tell you about a training camp for breakthrough. We all need to be prepared for championship living and you need training to be able to do it.





Byrne, R. Breakthrough - Championship Living in a Computer Age (Audio Cassette Series), Springboard! 1985.



About the Author

The late Richard Byrne was a former professor and dean at USC's Annenberg School of Communications. He was known for making computers less intimidating for all of us. In 1982 Dr. Byrne founded one of the first consulting firms of its kind, called Springboard! His company was devoted to acquainting executives with high technology. As president,Dr. Byrne traveled as far as Europe and Thailand presenting as many as 200 lectures a year. He enlivened complex computer terminology with humorous wit and common-sense explanations. Dr. Byrne, who had previously taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas, left his position as a full-time professor at USC in 1984 to devote himself to an increasingly lucrative lecturing career.



The late Mary Ann Byrne had chosen to license this content under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The Journal of Biocommunication Management Board and Editors believe that transparency in academic research is essential. Our JBC authors are now required to disclose any possible conflict of interest when submitting a manuscript. In accordance with the Journal of Biocommunication's editorial policy, no potential conflict of interest has been reported or declared by Dr. Byrne's estate.




The Journal of Biocommunication wishes to acknowledge the late Mary Anne Byrne, who before her own death, had graciously allowed us to publish the content from her late husband's recorded lecture presentations.

Dr. Byrne's portrait was provided by Mary Ann Byrne.